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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

The Horse Thief's Prayer

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Even today, the High Plains landscape seems on a clear day to stretch on forever. In the mid-1870s, with the then-unsettled area only traversed by vast herds of buffalo and the hunters who sought their hides, it is hard to imagine the solitude.

Having a horse in that country was almost as critical a need as food, water and shelter. In fact, ending up afoot often meant death.

Nearly a quarter-century later, Colorado City cattle dealer John Lovelady still clearly remembered what happened to him up on those plains on Feb. 12, 1877. It led to a relentless pursuit that lasted 27 days and covered more than 1,000 miles. He told his story to a St. Louis newspaper reporter in 1901.

Camped with five other buffalo hunters on Sand Creek in present Scurry County, late that winter day Lovelady saw two strangers ride up. Asking if they could spend the night, the men said they had been out hunting oxen and had just about run out of food.

Adhering to the already well-established Code of the West, Lovelady and his fellow hunters welcomed the pair and fed them supper. In the morning, the hunters gave the men some grub and they departed.

Later, when Lovelady walked to a nearby canyon where he and his colleagues had hobbled their horses for the night, they were gone. At first, he thought Indians had stolen them. But then he noticed boot prints. One of the boots left a mark made by a metal plate tacked to its heel. By happenstance, Lovelady had noticed the night before that one of their guests wore such a boot.

Returning to camp, Lovelady reported the theft and said he intended to go after the two men and the stolen mounts. One of the hunters, Marion Blakely, agreed to join him. They stocked up on bread and dried buffalo meat, buckled on their six-shooters and with their .50 caliber hunting rifles, left on foot in pursuit of mounted thieves.

"The ground was covered with tall grass and we had no trouble in following the trail," Lovelady recalled. "We [walked] about 35 miles the first day, and became convinced that the thieves were making for western Kansas."

On the fourth day, the two horse-less hunters exhausted their food. They did kill a buffalo, but the meat was so poor that all they ate was its liver. And then, things got even worse.

Seeing in the distance a man on a wagon, Lovelady left Blakely behind and hurried to meet the man to explain their plight. The hunter walked to within a few yards of the man when he stopped his team, grabbed his gun and leveled it at Lovelady. Turned out the man took Lovelady for an outlaw and didn't believe his story about being on the trail of horse thieves.

When it looked like the wagon driver was about to shoot him, Lovelady grabbed his gun, overpowered him and forced him to drive to where he had left his partner and from there take them to his camp. There, the other men in the suspicious man's party believed Lovelady's story. They gave the two hunters some meat, but could not spare to loan them horses.

Two days later, still tracking the thieves, the sore-footed hunters again ran out of food and again had to resort to buffalo liver. On top of that, the nights were cold, and during the day, they suffered for lack of water.

Ten days out, having averaged 40 miles a day, the pair encountered a solitary buffalo hunter who told them he had recently seen two men leading a string of jaded horses. The older hunter fed the two pursuers and told them where he figured the riders he had seen would make their next camp.

In the morning, with a strong norther blowing, the two hunters began following the old man's directions. Sure enough, they came to a ravine and from about 50 yards off spotted their stolen horses.

"We could have easily taken possession of the horses," Lovelady said, "but were determined to have the men, too."

Following the tracks leading away from the horses, they came to a dugout with smoke coming from its chimney. The two hunters burst inside at gunpoint, quickly determined that of the six men warming themselves around the fire, only the two men they had been following were guilty. The other four men were buffalo hunters and had merely let the two men stay with them until the weather improved.

In the morning, their 12th day out, Lovelady and Blakely left with the two thieves, their hands now tied behind them. That night, they camped near a stand of cottonwood trees. When Lovelady began looking for a sturdy limb, the men readily understood their fate.

One of them began to cry, followed by fervent prayer. The other thief cursed Lovelady and commented unflatteringly on his ancestry.

Lovelady had heard cussing before, but never the kind of prayer the one doomed man offered. "He prayed for himself, for his companion in crime, for me and for Blakely, but when he began to pray for his wife and baby, even [the other thief] was overcome with emotion," he said. "That prayer saved two lives, for Blakely and I weakened, and there was no hanging."

As an old man, Lovelady turned the story into something of a parable showing the power of prayer. No matter one's religious beliefs or lack thereof, it sure worked in this case.

Rather than a "suspended sentence" beneath a cottonwood tree in the middle of nowhere, the two men faced trial in Albany (then the nearest court), got convicted, and got two-year prison terms. Whether they stayed on the straight and narrow after they got of the Huntsville penitentiary is not known, but the close call would have reformed most men.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" May 25 , 2017 column

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